I wasn’t expecting a ride in handcuffs to the Shelby County Jail when I decided to observe a security guard at the Wolfchase Galleria trail a group of young black men like a cat trailing mice.
But as a 59-year-old African-American man, I’m well aware of how young black men are viewed through negative stereotypes that can end in arrest. As a good friend describes it, these young men in Memphis are viewed as “criminals in waiting.”
At Wolfchase on Saturday evening, I saw the white security guard speak into his two-way radio. Soon after, an African-American male Shelby County sheriff’s deputy led the four young men back to a mall entrance and out the door.
The deputy said they violated the mall’s hoodie policy. (Editor’s note: The mall’s code of conduct does not mention hooded sweatshirts, but says only that appropriate attire is required. Wolfchase has not responded to requests for documentation of a dress code that references hoodies.)
One of the benefits of white privilege in America is that young white men aren’t viewed as potential criminal threats if they wear hoodies. (For more on that, read “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo.)
Because of our nation’s racist history, black men do not enjoy that privilege. The image of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American killed by a neighborhood vigilante in Florida in 2012, and his hoodie are a powerful example of that danger.
Granted, crime and the perception of crime are legitimate issues for Wolfchase. But I, for one, will not grant that targeting hoodies and the young black men who prefer them is a legitimate, non-discriminatory crime prevention strategy.
Soon after those young men were expelled from the mall, they decided to return. “We have rights,” I heard one say.
They reminded me of the young people who challenged segregation by sitting at lunch counters despite being told they were unwelcome.
They reminded me of a young African-American activist who had this question for sociologist Michael Eric Dyson after Dyson spoke at the University of Memphis: Why isn’t the older generation supporting the new activism of the younger generation through groups like Black Lives Matter?
Dyson didn’t have a good answer, and neither did I.
I was silent when I should have spoken up
The young men at Wolfchase called to mind a day I will always regret.
About three years ago at the Paradiso movie theater, a 60-something white man, who was waiting with his wife for the movie to begin, complained to theater management about two young black men seated a couple of rows away.
I hadn’t been seated long, but the young men had done nothing to draw my attention. A theater employee arrived to eject the young men from the theater. I should have stood up for them and left with them. I’m ashamed that I didn’t.
At Wolfchase Saturday, I knew that the phone in my pocket could capture the truth of how young black men out to enjoy a trip to the mall like any other young men could be targeted for their choice of outerwear.
Two Memphis police officers, whom I later was told were off-duty and moonlighting but were in uniform and armed, as well as two men who appeared to Shelby County sheriff’s deputies, intercepted the young men who dared to return to the mall.
One Memphis officer handcuffed a young man and led him away to a mall back office. A deputy and an officer turned their attention to me as I took the video, saying I couldn’t record the encounter and had to leave. Officer A. Henderson handcuffed me and marched me away after I did not immediately lower my phone and leave the mall as a banned person for the day.
Henderson was irritated when I continued to protest that the arrests were improper. The vague charge of “criminal trespass” — a favorite law enforcement tool for controlling black populations — was used to put legal teeth behind the mall’s nebulous rules.
Today, malls are considered the public squares of the suburbs, although they are, as an officer noted, private property with private rules. At Wolfchase, taxpayer-trained and -equipped law enforcement officers use the full power of the criminal justice system to enforce opaque mall policies that harness racial stereotypes to create a mall-to-prison pipeline.
Henderson said I would go to jail, rather than receive a misdemeanor citation, because I continued talking. The young man also arrested was threatened with being jailed — because I kept talking — but was released with a citation after he was sufficiently frightened.
Wasted time, taxpayer dollars
A trip to the jail at 201 Poplar, where I was turned away because I’m currently receiving treatment for an infected toe, was followed by a trip to the Regional One Health, known as The Med.
That was followed by a trip to a nearby fire station, where my handcuffs, which had malfunctioned, were removed with bolt cutters.
Then I was taken back to Wolfchase. All of this wasted at least three hours of an on-duty officer’s time, time paid for by taxpayers.
If he weren’t transporting me, this officer would have been taking calls back in Cordova. In fact, he may have earned overtime pay while handling my arrest, which resulted in a misdemeanor citation.
Back at the mall, a security officer presented a form to sign saying I was banned, but it wasn’t necessary. I won’t be going back.
Kevin McKenzie was a newspaper reporter for more than 30 years before he was laid off from The Commercial Appeal in 2017.
Editor’s note: MLK50 contacted the Memphis Police Department and Simon Property Group, which owns Wolfchase Galleria, for comment.
The mall released this statement:
“Wolfchase Galleria is focused on providing a safe environment for all customers and employees. We require customers to not conceal their identity while on mall property as a matter of public safety. It is important that our security cameras and security personnel be able to see the faces of everyone on property. Mall security personnel respectfully ask all customers concealing their identity to conform to the policy. Police are only called if a customer refuses or becomes belligerent. In this instance, a Memphis Police Department officer repeatedly requested the individual to remove his ‘hoodie.’ He did not comply with this directive and was removed from the mall. The incident on Saturday night was managed by the MPD and we refer all questions about the circumstances to MPD.”
The Memphis Police Department released this statement:
“The off-duty MPD officer was working a secondary job as security for Wolfchase Galleria. MPD officers are allowed to work a secondary job as long as they follow the policy that is in place for additional and secondary employment.
“Working an additional or secondary job is nothing new and has been available for officers for many years. When officers are working their additional or secondary job, they are not being compensated by the City of Memphis. The company in which they work for is responsible for paying the officer due to the officer is hired by them, and works for them just as any other employee.
“Mr. Mckenzie was not arrested for recording, he was arrested for criminal trespass due to the fact that he did not comply when asked to leave the premises.”
Where do we go from here?
About the history of criminal trespassing and loitering laws.
Salon: The Orwellian police tactic that targets Black Americans for simply existing
Washington Post: Starbucks, LA Fitness and the long, racist history of America’s loitering laws
About what hoodies mean, post Trayvon-Martin.
NPR: Tragedy Gives The Hoodie A Whole New Meaning
The Memphis Police Department’s policy on public recordings, which defines a public space as “common areas of public and private facilities and buildings, and any other public or private facility at which the individual has a legal right to be present.”
The policy also says: “As long as the photographing or recording takes place in a setting at which the individual has a legal right to be present and does not interfere with a member’s safety, members shall not (emphasis theirs) inform or instruct people that photographing or recording of police officers, police activity or individuals who are the subject of police action.. is not allowed, requires a permit or requires the member’s consent…”
“Members shall not (emphasis theirs)… (i)n any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording members’ enforcement activities.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change.